After what seemed an age, last night I finally finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It was the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2009, which immediately tells you that it can’t be that bad. I haven’t read too many of the books that have won this prize, but the couple I have read, I have really enjoyed (The Life of Pi and The English Patient). This book however, I found to be a struggle.Which is a big thing for me, especially when I have managed to get through War & Peace, Anna Karenina and Les Miserables. None of them are exactly an easy read and you certainly have to persevere to get through them, but I managed all of them and it wasn’t as difficult as I had anticipated. But this book was something different altogether. I can’t quite put my finger on why it was so hard for me to get through, perhaps there are a few reasons. But one thing I do know is that I didn’t really enjoy this all that much. It is very rare that I come across a book that I don’t particularly like, but this book has just landed itself in that category.
I really enjoy learning about The Tudors and Henry VIII with all his wives. I have recently finished watching the first series of the t.v. show The Tudors and it was quite enjoyable. But this is a part of history that has been done and done again. There was also a little book called The Other Boleyn Girl and the film of the same name which I actually preferred. But the difference with Wolf Hall is that it is written from the perspective of one Mr Thomas Cromwell (an ancestor of Oliver Cromwell). He is actually a very interesting person and if you want to know more about him, you should go here http://englishhistory.net/tudor/citizens/cromwell.html . He was really a very important person in English history. It was he that managed to gain the annulment of the marriage of King Henry and Katherine of Aragon, without which the marriage to Anne Boleyn would not have been possible (and therefore there would have been no Queen Elizabeth I) and it was he that helped engineer the break of the English church from the papacy in Rome. Aside from the great achievements in his public life, not much is known of his personal life. In that respect, this book is very interesting as it helps one to imagine what it may have been like for him. While reading this book, I also took some time to research him a little bit and from what I can see, Mantel appears to have given us a pretty accurate historical account of Cromwell’s life.
Now, onto why I found this a hard read. I am not used to this style of writing. I am so not used to it that I can’t even really describe it. It’s sort of written in the first person, but from the perspective of a bystander, if that makes sense. One minute you are observing Cromwell over his shoulder and the next you are in his head. The book was floating around in my bag for nearly 2 months before I managed to finish reading it and I think the main reason it took so long is because I had to keep re-reading sentences so that I could make sense of them.
It also jumps around quite a bit in terms of time and location, and it wasn’t until I had gone 20 or 30 pages past something I just didn’t quite get, before I could make sense of it. I think that if I didn’t already know a little bit about the Tudor history, this would have made no sense to me. Confusion can also set in when every second male character is called ‘Thomas’. There were 10 altogether: Cromwell, Wolsey, Boleyn, Avery, Wriothesley, Audley, More,Wyatt, Cranmer and Seymour. So make sure you are really focussing when there are a couple of Thomas’ around. I did like though that Cromwell himself pointed out that calling out the name ‘Thomas’ in his home could bring half the household running.
What I did really like about this book though, was being able to learn about someone new. I had heard of Thomas Cromwell before I read this, but I never had a real grasp of exactly what he did and why he is such an important figure in English history. For this reason, I would really recommend reading this book. Although I didn’t enjoy it much and struggled through it, I appreciate the fact that I actually learnt something. I may even read it again in the next year or so to see if it makes more sense to me.
So, if I haven’t completely put you off reading Wolf Hall (which I truly hope I haven’t), make some time for yourself and get stuck into it. Just make sure you don’t read it while you’re tired, or while your mind is focussed on other things. When you are reading this you really need to be concentrating so you don’t miss anything (maybe that’s where I went wrong?). Anyway, if anyone else has read this I would be very interested in reading your thoughts on it – maybe it will help me understand it better. I have also just learnt that there will be a sequel to Wolf Hall. To be honest, I will more than likely read it. If I don’t, I will feel like I have just wasted the last two months reading this.
RATING – 5 out of 10. I learnt something but didn’t love the book.
WHO SHOULD READ IT – People interested in Tudor history for starters. It is nice to see the whole Anne Boleyn saga from a different perspective.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE – Aside from the obvious charms of Cromwell himself, my favourite character was probably Christophe. A young French lad who doesn’t enter until towards the back-end of the book and doesn’t appear frequently, but is very endearing.
FAVOURITE QUOTE – Cromwell’s thoughts on the young boys who might have been monks, but have no real calling to the life. “Questioning them, he usually finds they know nothing, which makes nonsense of the abbeys’ claims to be the light of learning. They can stumble through a Latin prayer, but when you say, ‘Go on then, tell me what it means,’ they say, ‘Means, master?’ as if they thought that words and their meanings were so loosely attached that the tether would snap at the first tug.”